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Rethinking the Traditional Agency Model and Why It Needs to Change

running-shoesCollaboration and partnership are the name of the game these days. And nearly anything worth doing creatively requires disparate subject experts and thought leaders who rally together around a tightly defined problem.

What separates the successful breakthroughs from the failed attempts at greatness is the ability to quickly pull together the best possible team members -- without regard for where its members may reside -- who have the talent and skills required to address a client’s toughest challenges. A client recently summarized successful working creative partner relationships as feeling like “slipping on a pair of old running shoes.”

Recently, I was quoted in a business publication where the reporter interpreted my explanation of network-based creative development as “outsourcing.” Although the article was terrific overall, when I read it, the word “outsourcing” made me cringe. While it’s an understandable interpretation on the reporter’s behalf, it doesn’t at all fit the realities of the emerging new model of creative development, based not on traditional in-house creative departments, but instead on an ever-expanding network of creative resources geared towards radically expanding possibilities.

The trouble with the traditional agency model is that it’s inherently biased against the very fast-moving, ephemeral opportunities made possible by fast-moving technological advances and content innovations. For example, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If an agency hires the best talent it can afford to create memorable TV campaigns, the answer to most marketing challenges will be a memorable TV campaign. But collecting talented specialists for the full range of communications channels an agency might need to tap would be cost-prohibitive. The best and the brightest in fast-emerging disciplines typically prefer to work for themselves or in small teams, rather than being housed within giant holding companies.

“Outsourcing” is defined as “to obtain (goods or a service) from an outside or foreign supplier, especially in place of an internal source,” and while this is technically true, it lacks the critical nuance of network-based partnerships. Building, maintaining, inspiring, and collaborating with a network of creative partners is completely different than outsourcing or calling in freelancers to handle an overflow of work or to fill in the gaps. While freelancers can play an important role in an agency, their role is often hidden behind the scenes, with the agency leadership generally being associated with any creative breakthrough birthed by freelancers in the engine room. Network partners, on the other hand, play at the top of the funnel, are showcased to clients, and are integrated in the earliest stages of the creative process. (At Mechanica, we refer to this as our endless creative hallway.)

While it may be more convenient (and comfortable) for an agency to use the resources of an established, in-house creative department, the approach rarely allows for the possibility of creating the smartest possible experience across all dimensions of a brand’s presence. By transitioning from a traditional agency model to one that is network-based, agencies — and their customers — can enjoy the full benefit of fast-moving technological innovations that allow them to do new and exciting things.

For agencies that are thinking about realigning their business model to reflect the realities of today’s new world, here are four keys to help you along the journey:

1) Find the Best

Constantly scan for the best work – ads, design, art, social media, etc., – and track down those responsible. Tap into your clients’ networks, which are likely filled with people who have valuable skills and talents. Even better, build a proprietary database of thousands of potential partners like we do.

2) Keep in Contact

Proactively engage with your network partners. When it’s time to get to work, it will be like slipping on a pair of old running shoes.

3) Develop a Process

Establish basic controls, processes, and briefing protocols to avoid miscommunication around important topics like confidentiality, briefing, deliverables, and pricing.

4) Be Transparent

Sharing the credit is testimony to the fact that one has committed to a true network-based partnership model